Obama's Environmental Lesson

The president finally finds a green policy so repugnant that he is forced to stop it.

It’s taken a while, but Barack Obama may be starting to catch on to the fact that his much more savvy Democratic predecessor in the Oval Office, Bill Clinton, figured out fairly early: a Democratic President doesn’t have to kowtow to the environmental movement. Democrats can rather ignore them, because whom else are greenies going to vote for? Republicans? Nope. Ralph Nader? Big deal. Much the same is the case with the African American community: Democrats have a monopoly on the green movement and thus they can afford to ignore its wishes.

It did, admittedly, take what was – or at least should have been – a no-brainer of a decision for Barack Obama to finally say no to the wishes of the eco-left. Last week Obama, like George W. Bush before him, directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to leave the ambient air ozone standard right where it is, at seventy-five parts per billion.

If that’s not quite good news for the economy, it’s certainly less bad news. Lowering the ambient air ozone standard further, as so many environmental organizations wished, would have been a disaster for America. It would have added billions of dollars in costs to industries located in areas that have heretofore been spared the worst of the EPA’s regulatory burden, driven up the price of fuel and created even more job losses.

By Act of Congress, the EPA gets to set ambient air standards by itself, unless the president intervenes. This is the ultimate in job security for a bureaucrat; a way of ensuring that the EPA’s work is never – can never – be done. It wasn’t that long ago that the ambient air standard for ozone was 120 parts per billion, a value that both EPA and environmental groups then assured us was the dividing line between healthy and unhealthy air.

Unfortunately for the EPA, America cleaned up the air to the point that just about every county met that goal. What to do? If you’re the EPA and you actually meet a goal, the choices are: 1) declare victory (and lose funding), or 2) move the goalposts back so that you stay relevant. Guess which choice the agency always makes? Such was the case with ozone standard, with the EPA sliding the goalposts back under Clinton and again under Bush.

Yet, even though the Bush-era standard was lower than the Clinton-era standard, Bush was bad for the environment, while Clinton was good, according to the leftist narrative. This self-fulfilling prophecy manifested itself many times, including when Bush’s EPA lowered the ozone standard.

Back then, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) had recommended lowering the ozone standard to as little as 60 parts per billion. (The standard was then 80 parts per billion.) President Bush considered CASAC’s advice and weighed that against the economic price that would be paid and decided – rightly in my opinion – that the tiny improvement in already good air quality wouldn’t come close to offsetting the economic consequences. For those economic consequences – job loss, reductions in income and all the rest – have every bit of an impact on the health and welfare of the populace as does the environment in which we live. And so, by presidential order, the EPA lowered the standard to a reasonable level: 75 parts per billion.

The environmental movement went nuts after that decision was announced, accusing Bush of taking the side of polluters and endangering the health of each and every American. Mind you, Bush had lowered the standard and thus further cleaned up the air – cleaner than his predecessor – but he was bad, because he “ignored scientific advice.”

This, of course, was a reference to CASAC, a group of seven people, most of whom are from the academic world. But, contrary to the way the environmental groups framed the issue (and the way the technically-challenged mainstream media blindly repeated that message), CASAC is not supposed to make environmental policy, nor has it ever had that function. It is there to provide what advice it can, given the narrow discipline and focus of its members.

Essentially, CASAC said that the 60 parts per billion is less than 75 parts per billion and – in the absence of any other evidence – would make for a more desirable standard. And it surely would, but why stop at 60? Why not 50, or 25, or even zero? The answer of course is that there is some point where the tiny amount of risk reduction associated with another small drop in air pollution doesn’t even come close to balancing out against the economic and societal costs. George W. Bush understood that when he had to address the ozone standard, and it appears that Barack Obama now gets it – at least in this instance.

Yet, having come to the same conclusion as Bush, don’t expect that Obama will get nearly as much grief from the eco-left. Oh, they grumbled of course, but at the end of the day they know that they have nowhere else to go. And besides, Obama and his EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, have already increased the scope and power of the EPA immeasurably, ensured that the coal industry will die a long, slow death and dramatically curtailed offshore drilling. They can live with this one setback.

For the rest of us, it’s great that Obama finally found an environmental initiative so obviously repugnant that even he was forced to put a stop to it. The larger question remains however: can the nation live with all of the eco-left initiatives that this administration has already approved?